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On and Off the Grid

Transitions: Musician To Artist, or Finding Your Own Voice

By Published: March 22, 2012
Professional and amateur musicians come in all hats and sizes. There are classical, blues, jazz, country, rock musicians and musicians that specialize in all kinds of music. There are musicians from every corner of the world. If your definition of a musician is someone who:
1. Is a master of his/her instrument;

2. Can play in any key;

3. Can read music well;

4. Can transpose music;

5. Has a good understanding of harmony and theory;

6. Has an extensive repertoire


I would say you are right in a traditional kind of way. Except that's the way it use to be. Nowadays, most instrumentalist function at a different level or point of view than the musicians of yesteryear. Although there are more music schools and universities graduating students than ever before, there are thousands of players that are not educated and are considered musicians.

Why?

1. There is so much music out there, many people learn to play by ear;

2. I believe some of it is because of the growth of rock and roll, and pop music. The business of making money by record companies and bands and the consumption of this music by the public and the Internet and YouTube.;

3. The rise of singer-songwriters;

4. There are countries that musical talent is passed down from generation to generation. Music is learned by rote, not by formal education;

5. There are many books that can teach you how to play your designated instrument without a teacher;

6. Many people around the world cannot afford music lessons.


When I was a young up-and-coming musician. I could not play in an orchestra where the best jobs were, and if I wanted a degree from a decent music university I would have to switch to bass. My next choice was to be a studio player. Even though I was to be able to read well, transpose, and play in all genres, in the sixties, it was like getting into the electricians union. (Only Americans will understand this).

Most classical musicians are very skilled and can read anything. They are great musicians, but not all of them are artists. Many of the blues and county musicians are not readers, but they are great players and artists.

When I was a teenager I would hear a guitarist play rock 'n' roll or a blues lick. My first thought was, "But can he really play?" Everything, to me was related to jazz. If you couldn't play jazz, you couldn't play. I know it was a bit restrictive and naive, but that's how I thought then. Nowadays the critique is if you are a jazz player, you can only play if you are a good bebop, modern or swing player. There are many musicians out there who are trained jazz musicians but would rather play free-form or avant-garde jazz. This doesn't take away from their musicianship; personally, I think it adds to their playing. If you listen to early John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
and follow his playing through his career, you can see how he progressed from playing rhythm and blues (walking the bar) to bebop to an avant-garde jazz. At the beginning of his avant-garde period he was ridiculed, but eventually won over the critics and his fans. Coltrane alone made avant-garde jazz popular. Which brings us to the topic of this months' article.

How does one make that transition from musician to jazz artist or in other words, how do you find your own voice?

Guitar great Jack Wilkins
Jack Wilkins
Jack Wilkins
b.1944
guitar
says, "I think it's not always healthy to concern yourself with being an 'artist.' It's a popular expression today but what often happens is a player stops thinking of the music at hand and gets too egotistical in their playing. The great movie director John Ford always said he was just a journeyman. That's not an insult, as he made some of the greatest movies ever. Play the music to your best and let the critics decide if you're an artist." Jack is absolutely right, I've known Jack over forty years and in my estimation there is no denying that Jack is a great artist.

Piano master Steve Kuhn
Steve Kuhn
Steve Kuhn
b.1938
piano
says, "it's a continuing process" that is still ongoing and is a constant.

The first time I heard someone refer to me as an artist, I was taken aback. I never thought of myself as artist, but just a player, I still think of myself as a player on a path and my only concern is to create the best music I can and contribute to this music we call jazz, but there is a point where you graduate from musician to master. Master, artist, journeyman; these are all semantics. What's important is how you get there.

NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
b.1946
saxophone
says, "I found my own voice when I switched from tenor to soprano sax." Sometimes that's all it takes. Teacher of the jazz greats, Dennis Sandole, urged Trane to switch to soprano. Dennis thought that the soprano was a better fit for what Trane wanted to do.

Tenor great Sabir Mateen
Sabir Mateen
Sabir Mateen
b.1951
multi-instrumentalist
says, "I found my voice almost as soon as I started playing. For me finding my voice was easy. The hard part is developing your voice. As long as you keep playing and being honest with yourself then you'll always have your own voice."

I can only speak from my own experience and what I feel and what I have seen and learned in my lifetime.

An artist is someone who not only can interpret the music but also brings something of himself to the music. It can be the spirit, the intelligence, style, sound or the soul of oneself. But whatever it is, you own it. It is yours alone. So much so that whatever you play, it is distinctive. Your style or sound is immediately recognized. The best examples I can think of are Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery
1925 - 1968
guitar
, Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith
1922 - 2013
guitar
, Cliff deMarks
Cliff deMarks
Cliff deMarks
b.1953
piano
and many, many more. Nowadays these giants have been copied so much that their influences are immediately recognized in the younger players of today.

But how does a young player make that transition? What does it take to find his own voice? Many of the younger musicians have gone to universities or have studied privately. The biggest comment I hear, and believe is that studying at a college may be great for understanding harmony, theory, reading and all the scales related to improvisation, but it does not create individualism in the students. Basically they are all learning the same things and come out playing the same way.

The schools and private teachers stress listening and transcribing from the masters. If you keep listening, in this way you can develop your ear. The most important thing to playing jazz is "ears," meaning you can play anything you can hear inside your head. Well if your head is filled with all this listened music you've been studying, what do you think you will play? Everything you have listened to will eventually beam its head out and you will sound like everyone else. The truth is how many ways can you play a melodic minor scale? This never made sense to me. Scales are not music. Either are arpeggios. Intervals and rhythm make music. How you play those intervals and rhythms combined with the feeling and spirit behind them will differentiate you from the flock?

Guitar great Rick Stone
Rick Stone
Rick Stone
b.1955
guitar
says, "Finding our own voice may be just a function of us 'accepting' our own voice as being something valid and not trying so hard to 'be' someone else. I've learned a lot from listening to other players and I continue to do so because there's so much I still need to learn. I can love what they're doing, and still learn from it, but I don't feel any compulsion to 'be' them because, as John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
b.1944
guitar
so wisely told me in about 1980, it's 'too hard.'" Another opinion that hits the mark Yet, how do you get there?

My story.

During the early sixties, after years of listening to every guitarist and ingesting all that music, invariably I would go on a gig and sound like Wes Montgomery. Then the next gig I would sound like Johnny Smith or Tal Farlow. I wasn't aware of it till a fellow musician, John Ruta, pointed this out to me. Realizing this was true, I stopped listening to guitar players and spent more time listening to Miles, Trane and Monk.

Yet I still hadn't developed my own voice. What finally did it for me was I stopped listening. I started listening to myself. I would record my solos and listen back and see what it was that made me sound like others or myself. This took a long time. I then moved on to free-form improvisation, not with others, but with myself. I found that trying to be creative without a harmonic background and yet make it sound melodic wasn't easy.

Then I moved on to atonal free-form improv. When I mastered that, I decided to use what I had taught myself and apply it to improvising on tunes. I would take one tune and play it over and over again, making sure I knew the melody inside and out. Then I would solo on the original chords and the substituted chords. I wanted to be able to play either inside or out on tunes. This concept freed me up from the standard approach to improvising and also taught me that in order to play well and creatively I had to let go of everything I knew and just play.

Mistakes were part of the learning curve. There were times while I was going through this process that I sounded absolutely awful and I thought the approach I was striving towards would never happen. What I didn't realize was that, although I knew what I wanted to play, I hadn't gotten my technique to where I needed it to be in order to play everything I could hear. I am not talking about speed, but a musical technique. That brain muscle that hears the odd intervals, the jumps and skips that makes improvisation different and yet musical. I also worked on singing my solos. The tonal (inside) I found easy, but the outside was difficult. Scatting and playing at the same time helped a lot. Scatting against the changes without playing tremendously developed my ears.

There were times I would put on a John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
reeds
record and play along. I didn't want to copy the solos, but what I wanted was to get the spirit, energy and inflection of what they were doing, but using my own notes and technique. This was a big help.

The next step was to use what I learned when playing with other musicians. In the early-to-late sixties there were plenty of jam sessions, rehearsal bands and new music groups for me to play with. In this way I was able to try out and master what I was working on.

From the time I was fourteen years old, I always had a rehearsal or working guitar trio. In the sixties and seventies as I was developing and coming into my own as a player, there were many times I was fired for playing too far out. I didn't play as far out then as I do now, but as I have found, it isn't the public that dismisses you, it's the club owners. I could never understand that if you are bringing in an audience and you are making money, why fire a band because you don't like the music yourself?

I started listening again about fifteen years ago, but not as a musician who absorbs everything like a sponge, but more like a fan and for the sheer enjoyment of it.

After speaking with Jack Wilkins, Dave Liebman, Rick Stone, Steve Kuhn and Sabir Mateen, I realized that I could talk to a hundred great artists and every one of them would tell me something different. There is no one road or any guarantee. It is a never-ending road. It takes a lot of work, time and energy and dedication to get there.


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